Muv-Luv Alternative: Total Eclipse Volume 1

Ever had a show really toy with your expectations? As in, your preconceptions of it got dragged one way, then another, and then in a different direction altogether when you actually saw it?

This pretty accurately describes my history of confused expectations with Muv Luv Alternative: Total Eclipse. I first saw some footage of it just ahead of the announcement that it had been licensed for UK distribution. Before that, I didn’t even know it existed. And, me being the crazy mecha fanboy that I am, I was instantly excited by the scant shots I found of its awesomely designed robots in action. Yes, they were all rendered in CG, which is always disappointing for me, but they were done very well, and the show looked EXCITING. Thus, I found myself loudly applauding the news that it was being made available over here.

And then I saw more. And… uh…

I should clarify something at this point: As rabid a robot fan as I am, I’m just as inversely turned off by fan service elements in anime. As Justin Sevakis once commented in one of his Answerman articles on ANN, not every aspect of Japan’s culture is to be celebrated, and the blatant objectification of human beings that occasionally defines certain shows has never sat well with me. So, on seeing more footage of the show, replete with suggestive shots of amply-figured cuties all tightly trussed in flight suits with gravity-defying boobs a-jiggle, that initial sense of anticipation turned to something else. Something akin to the plunging weight of disappointment in my chest. And those excited forum posts where I’d exclaimed how pumped I was for the show felt like so much icky, sticky egg on my face. But I am nothing if not dutiful in my research, and so I took to the web to start looking up more details… and slowly, rays of hope began to appear.

Muv Luv Alternative: Total Eclipse, it transpires, is based on a light novel spin-off of the Muv Luv visual novel series, which has been enjoying success in Japan since 2003. What makes the anime more interesting to me personally is that it was produced by ixtl and Satelight, the latter studio having worked on more than a few excellent shows, including Noein and Heat Guy J, both solid faves of mine. So maybe – just maybe – this show could redeem itself on closer inspection.

The storyline, which, doesn’t presuppose ANY familiarity with the visual novels, runs along fairly standard alternate history sci-fi lines: In 1958, mankind discovers creatures on the moon, the BETA, apparently mindless and grotesque aliens with an appetite for human flesh. Fast forward 15 years, and the BETA have managed to find their way to Earth, and within a quarter of a century, mankind is embroiled in a life or death struggle with this otherworldly brood on their home soil.

Thus we meet Yui Takamura, a student of the Kyoto Royal Guard Academy, which trains students to pilot TSFs, huge mechanized units that are designed to combat the BETA. Along with her friends, Yui spends her days learning the theory behind combat, and even looks forward to it to a degree, the prospect of action in the field being just one aspect of her typical anime schoolgirl background. But she and her friends are forced to put their training to the test all too soon. As Asia is inevitably overrun by the BETA, the Academy’s students are pressed into service alongside the regular military in a desperate counterattack. Yui survives the ensuing bloodbath, which sees the Asian front lost to the alien threat, and the remaining nations banding together to combat the enemy in a – supposedly – more united fashion. Hence, in the last of several time skips in the opening episodes, she takes a senior position at the Prominent Yukon Alaska air base, where she plays her part in the oversight of various UN sanctioned test projects.

Still dealing with the trauma of her experiences three years previously, she supervises a team of test pilots as experimental TSF technologies are developed and field tested. But perhaps the biggest test of all comes from her interactions with a new arrival – the Japanese-American Yuuya Bridges, whose presence generates tension not only within the team, but of another, slowly simmering kind… if you get what I mean.

That, then, is the long and short of the show’s premise. And while it’s solid, it’s also pretty much standard fare for the kind of show this is. I’ve seen enough mecha series in my time that, just in order to keep them distinct in my mind, I’ve had to find a way to somehow categorize and critically dissect them. Thus, ladies, fish and gentlemen, I present to you THE THREE-POINT HdE MECHA ANALYSIS PLAN – a system I’ve carefully devised to help me critically dissect these giant robot epics. And lo! Henceforth, I shall share this in-depth and highly scientific method with you, in hopes that ye may take it away and use it to pronounce judgement on such things for thyselves. And then I’ll tell you what I thought of Muv-Luv Alternative: Total Eclipse anyway because, frankly, I don’t trust you to use it properly.

To boil things down to basics, I’ve come to judge mecha shows on three basic criteria: their overall premise, how they use their characters, and how they utilize that all-important mecha aspect. A final, extra consideration would be how well the show in question balances these aspects, and whether the resulting show is appealing and enjoyable as a result.

I’ve already mentioned the show’s premise, which, to be fair, is a little uninspired but certainly solid enough to hang a decent show on. This leaves the show’s mecha aspect to consider – and I enjoyed this quite a bit more than I expected to. As I previously mentioned, it’s admittedly disappointing to see another mecha show that exclusively uses CG for its robots, but Muv-Luv at least uses CG consistently, and features designs that fit the show perfectly. The TSFs are cool, militaristic-looking creations, and Satelite have given some real thought to how they’re rendered. They feel pretty well integrated into the animation and aren’t as jarring as some of the CG mechs I’ve seen in other shows.

While I’m on the subject of CG, I really have to mention how Ixtl and Satelite have used it elsewhere in the show. Because, while I’m really happy with how the TSFs look and move on-screen, I’m not quite as enamoured with the more general use of computer animation. The BETA look okay, and are suitably alien and grotesque in appearance, but there’s more flip-flopping between CG and traditional 2D for them. And some scenes where environments are rendered in CG look a little cheap. One example would be the opening scene of one early episode where Yuuya is struggling to control his TSF, and we’re treated to what should be a vertigo inducing shot of the rolling treeline below him. The tension here was killed for me by the realisation that every single tree in the forest below looks identical. Likewise, I was disappointed to see the show cheap out during some action scenes in Episodes 11 and 12,  using still frames of action that I can’t help but think really COULD have been CG animated. Isn’t the point of CG to save a few yen here and there? Just how close to budget were you sailing, guys?  

As far as the giant robot angle goes, though, this is where Muv-Luv come closest to marking itself as distinct from other mecha shows. We don’t actually get much in the way of memorable battle scenes throughout this volume, but there’s something gnarly about the spectacle of the TSFs standing smeared with BETA blood. You won’t have to wait long to see that, either – the two-part series opener front-loads a fair bit of the show’s gore, and is about as action-packed as these dozen episodes get. In fact, I found myself thinking that, had Muv Luv kept up the kind of stuff it showed early on, it could have been cruising for ‘surprise hit’ status. Not because gore is big and clever, but because the tone and execution of the show at that point is really well judged and feels refreshingly different.

Unfortunately, the rolling of Episode 2’s end credits heralds what will arguably feel like a misstep for some, as the show’s focus shifts toward something more character-based, and away from Yui. Once everything’s transplanted to Alaska, and we meet Yuuya and the rest of the show’s cast properly, the pace slips down a few gears. Whether that necessarily means it becomes less enjoyable for you is going to depend on two things: the change of direction in the story and the way the show handles the third crucial aspect of the THE THREE-POINT HdE MECHA ANALYSIS PLAN – its characters.

So much hinges on the strength of Muv-Luv’s cast because, as soon as things settle, it’s really going to be the interpersonal drama between the test pilots at the Yukon air base that clinches the decision whether to keep watching or not. This, plus the developing tension between Yui and Yuuya, interspersed with the odd TSF sortie, is really what makes up so much of the episodes here.  

Muv Luv Alternative misses its footing a little in this area. From a distance, the characters are all decent enough, but zooming in to look at them a bit more closely, things don’t hold up so well. Most mecha shows tend to boast an inflated cast of characters, and this one’s no different. Besides the central players, there’s a cast of ancillary characters which, admittedly, feels about the right size for a 24 episode run… but isn’t used particularly well. Everyone in the second tier of characters is basically an archetype. We have the bespoke hothead, the amiable if lecherous free spirit, a disarmingly nice sidekick for Yuuya… and that’s about it. Except to say that the show earns a demerit for having one character fit an archetype that, by my reckoning, ONLY exists in anime – the improbably attractive female pilot whose boobs are so big that other characters actively comment on them. And that’s a stereotype I’d very happily see fired into the heart of the sun. Minus one point for that, Muv-Luv. Go to the back of the class.

Undercooked (and overboobed) side characters are excusable at this point, because half of the show is still to come – and who knows what adventures will unfold? The bigger problem is the way Muv-Luv’s lead characters work. Yui is compelling enough. Having shown us exactly what she’s lived through in that death-tastic series opening, her motives and inner demons are established with such clarity that we always know what’s driving her. But she’s annoyingly derailed by the odd moment of weakness that feels excessively girly and feminine, given all that. Likewise, Yuuya skirts very close to the line of being downright dislikeable, and could well cross that line for many viewers. There’s an interesting slant to this character, but it’s not that well implemented – maybe if we’d seen more of his back-story upfront like we did Yui’s, that could have helped? As it is, we’re parcelled out information about him much less directly, which makes him feel less like a genuinely interesting character and more like a complete dick, given his behaviour. When I mention the tension between these two characters, it’s definitely there, and the show pulls that aspect off successfully. But as you’ll see, the turnaround in relations between these two feels abrupt and a bit forced. This is definitely a series that would have benefited from some more careful consideration of how its leads interact and how they’re presented. It doesn’t completely fail in this regard – far from it – but it could use a little more cowbell.

Sentai’s dub is a mixed bag, with a few decent turns standing shoulder to shoulder with the downright iffy. Corey Hartzog’s stuttery, clipped delivery of his lines makes Yuuya feel a bit odd, even if the terseness of his character does shine through. We’ve also got one of the dodgiest Italian accents I’ve heard in anime since the ’90s courtesy of Jay Hickman, which sits squarely in ‘guys, I can see what you were aiming for, but seriously, that’s just awful’ territory. Either performance feels like it could have worked much better if given a bit more time to develop, which is a damned shame. But never mind, fellas – you’ll do better on another show, no doubt. Points are clawed back by great turns from Brittany Karbowski and the ever-fantastic Christine Auten as Russia’s Scarlet Twins, a well pitched performance by Krystal LaPorte as Yui, and some neat uses of recognisable voices in minor roles. The English language script itself also gets a thumbs up from me for taking things in a coarse direction. That may seem a dubious recommendation, but the fair smattering of casual swearing throughout actually gives the show a certain air of individuality, and fits with the occasional gruesomeness it doles out. When humanity’s in the thick of a struggle for survival, I think a potty-mouth has its place.

Overall, in spite of criticisms, I have to say that Muv-Luv Alternative’s first half came as something of a welcome surprise. Since finding out about the show’s visual novel roots, I was primed and ready to hate it. Visual novels ain’t my thing, much less the eroge this property started out as. But, while there’s enough in the way of jiggling boobs and awkward harem tendencies to say the show does wear its origins on its sleeve, the fan-service isn’t intrusive enough to spoil things too much. It may not come anywhere close to being ground-breaking or stand-out material, but Muv-Luv Alternative is perfectly fun, entertaining fare all the same. I actually found the story pretty engaging toward the end of this first batch of episodes, and the show’s willingness to serve up a splash of grisly during its alien encounters ensures there’s a real sense of threat and peril about them.

I hesitate to recommend any show on the strength of seeing just half of it, but this first set did enough to get me interested in how the remainder might play out. My expectations were admittedly pretty low, but they were capably met and even  – by a modest measure – exceeded. There are better shows, sure, and mecha fans are probably going to get more from Muv-Luv than anyone else. But, while I’d not say this is something to place at the top of your shopping list, it’s definitely worth a look.

7 / 10